May 28, 2008 by Patrice Ayme


Can one kill a relationship with hope and certainty? Yes, one can! Better can be worse! How come? People always want more, and that includes relationships. Once they feel socially secure enough, many move on. To know more, to possess more. It's part of a general instinct, the "Will to Augment".

Why do people always want more? Well, it’s a survival skill that turned into an evolutionary advantage: expand, augment when the going is good, and the probability of surviving will be greater for the group. The larger the territory, the more to exploit, the more buffer. After all, Homo evolved as a hunter, and social hunters on land have to be highly territorial, they spend a lot of time acquiring a place that they will defend to death. Lions and wolves spend a major part of their energy patrolling their territory and advertising loudly their presence. Everything else being equal, having more means such a higher survival capability, that the “Will to Augment” has been a strong advantage, so it evolved to become strongly dominant. Even many birds enjoy it, gathering and storing nuts. Since human beings can do much more  things than any other species, over the last few million years many activities were found in which frantically augmenting could be very advantageous. The instinct to augment evolved for millions of years on a huge planet, with a few good human troops, fighting each other to death, there were none of the limits to growth civilization would meet later, bringing that instinct under scrutiny.

When people have it all, all what they wanted previously, they move on to want even more, and not just landscape, or material goods, it extends to all imaginable dimensions. Augment as much as can be imagined, and when the going is good, get going some more. The instinct to augment is so ravenous, it’s why so many tyrants never stopped, even when it was clearly wiser to do so. Many a human folly, by otherwise wise people, is just about the "Will to Augment" gone on a rampage inside their minds.

The traditional example of Will to Augment gone amok is Easter Island, where, having cut the last tree, the islanders could not transport the last statue, nor build the last boat, nor fish nor escape. A subset of the “Will to Augment” acquired in turn a philosophical life of its own under the label of “Will to Power”.

In particular, once people have a relationship full of hope and certainty, they tend to want to move on. It’s psychobiological, all about getting maximum territory under control, in this case, social territory. Indeed, perhaps the greatest asset for survival has been the quest for power by extension of alliances, good both for groups and individuals in them. Ultimately, most of what people do is to extend these alliances (in particular in the framework of what is called a “career”, from the Old French meaning “horse race”). So if one can depend upon an individual, having thus one alliance one can depend on, one tends to move to the next one to extend an alliance with: the bigger the total set of alliances, the stronger. There is always a greener meadow on the other side of the fence, a new spring somewhere, and more interesting (in particular, the “Will to Augment” may even be the root of the anti-incest “instinct”: no point augmenting what you already got).

The quest the "Will to Augment" spurs one into is unending. Or is it? It’s not just that when astronauts went in orbit, they found nowhere else to go. The Dark ages themselves show that controlling the augmentation instinct is key to surviving the ongoing civilizational expansion. Augmentation here may mean diminution out there, somewhere more important.

For the longest time, indiscriminate augmentation was NOT what the Roman republic was about. Just the opposite: the law was Rome meta structure, in overall mental and social control. It prevented augmentation for augmentation’s sake (that naturally occurs most readily along the most basic instinctual lines). Roman secular law as the overlord of Roman psychology kept for many centuries the Roman republic as the most civilized place on Earth. The People, Populus Romanus, augmented its power as the plutocracy reluctantly relinquished its power.

But then, after Hannibal and his army hanged around Italy defeating and massacring Romans for 15 long, devastating years, indiscriminate augmentation of Roman material power and territorial extension was felt safest and wisest (all the more since brute augmentation of the military allowed the plutocracy (the Senate) to beat back the People into submission). That change to uncontrolled augmentation was perhaps the largest mistake civilization ever made. The brute force augmentation and militarization of Rome was deadly to civilizational progress. Within a century, it led to uncontrollable civil strife. Augustus was at the tail end of the next century, during which the republic died.

“Augustus” means “Augmenter”. It was the title Rome’s first official “Princeps” kindly found for himself. The fascist “augmentation” that great nephew and adoptive son of Caesar provided with, put most of civilization in reverse, and ended with the Christian apocalypse of the Dark Ages. Augustus' augmentation blocked higher mental creativity, that was Rome's undoing.

So, for more than two thousand years, the lesson has been that the quality and nature of what one wants to augment is more important than augmentation for augmentation’s sake. Augustus reached that conclusion himself in his testament, tentatively, but without drawing any deep consequence thereof (having got augmentation shy in his later years, he told his successors to stay out of Germania, a mistake that the Franks corrected five centuries later). Precisely for having the wrong concept of augmentation, the Augmenter, “Augustus”, single-handedly insured the dead end of Greco-Roman civilization.

The quest “Will to Power” spurs one to is unending, it’s a blind psychobiological instinct. It is very hard to stop, and it's more astute to redirect it towards internal, mental growth. And what is this growing inside about? Civilization. It starts inside. Otherwise one ends up with many ephemeral friends, and no meaning.

If one wants more civilization, one wants to transform relationships between people in ways that augment mental creativity. That’s what the Franks succeeded to do, by freeing women and slaves. When the slave is slave no more, and talk back she will, dumb exploiters of the people are forced to get smarter (or devise smarter schemes to exploit people). Thus an increase of intelligence feedbacks on itself. The entire society is forced to get smarter. That’s how the Franks resurrected Western civilization: by using higher ethics to force down more basic instinctual forms of the “Will to Power”, which had been thoroughly rotting the Greco-Roman edifice.

So material and social comfort is not something one wants to augment if one wants to create a context more friendly to the very highest civilizational principles. An advantage of discomfort, and resisting the call to more simplistic instincts are necessary to get smarter.

The unbridled Will to Augment along the most basic instinctual lines has been characteristic of the domineering class of all empires that got out of control. The USA has been no exception, and lack of psychoanalysis, at the individual or national level, has been overwhelming. Psychoanalysis is as far removed from the basic instincts as one can get, since its aim is to dissect them.

A very prosaic application of all this has been the huge taxes on energy long found in the European Union. The discomfort they induced have forced the Europeans to get smarter. Augmentation along the basic instinctual line of maximum waste became more uncomfortable than the alternative of augmenting in more spiritual ways.

A more subtle application of the psychological mechanisms exhibited here is that easy and cool mental attitudes are not the smartest. Unsurprisingly, both subjects are entangled: US society has learned to love it cool and easy, and general intelligence should have suffered as a result, and it did! This encroaching stupidity is demonstratable by looking at the US spurning of energy taxes, that led to an obsolete economy, the US incarceration rate, the US skewed distribution of riches, or health care, or the sub prime heist, or the hare brained invasion of the Middle East. All this is maddening in a country that wants to define itself as being about freedom, and the question is how did it happen?  How did the US become the pathetic victim of unbriddled propaganda of the few, the rich, the plutocrats, etc. All these were not fought, as they augmented themselves, because not doing anything augmented comfort: fighting back clearly diminishes once perception of augmentation. It's time to understand that the augmentation of comfort beyond some reasonable markers is the root cause of a lot of deviance.

If we do not want civilization to devolve, as it did with Rome and various fascisms, one will have to be careful what one wants to augment it with. The same goes for anyone, anytime. Augmented yes, but not if it means demented. It's a fine line individuals and countries have crossed readily.

Patrice Ayme,

P/S: The analysis of Confucius, Machiavelli and Foucault on power are much more restricted to the structures society uses for stability; Nietzsche was much more ambitious, since he covered much of psychology, not just the part pertaining to sociology; we provided here with an evolutionary support for Nietzsche's work.